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A Requiem for World War I – and for All Wars

Plough Music Series

Colin Fields

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This week marks the hundred-year anniversary of the start of one of history’s greatest catastrophes, the First World War, which began on July 28, 1914.

After the fighting ended in 1918 and patriotic fervor ebbed, the unprecedented horror of the war began to sink in. Many Christians were revolted at the way almost all churches, caught up in the war enthusiasm, had blessed weapons that slaughtered millions. Among those wrestling with these issues was a young British pastor, Dick Sheppard, who came to believe that war was wrong in all circumstances. Sheppard’s writing and public speaking inspired hundreds of thousands to pledge never to take up arms. He wrote:

We all desire peace, but where I think we differ is that some people still think of war as a possible and justifiable means of settling international disputes, while others have come to regard it in its modern dress as the last word in man’s futility and wickedness. These latter – among whom I am included – do not believe that a people who engage in war will be able to maintain either the old values and the ancient liberties that they desire to defend, or the new values that they desire to establish. No man who has become a man minds dying for some noble purpose; but to die in a process which kills all human purpose – that is both futile as well as obscene.

The teaching of Christ two thousand years ago is not only the word of God for yesterday, but the last word in concrete contemporary reality and common sense for today. Even if all the so-called wisdom of this world were ranged against the pacifist it should not make any difference whatsoever – at least so I maintain – to the attitude which the Christian must adopt. If he is asked to prepare for war there is only one answer that he can give – an uncompromising and resolute refusal.

The art of killing is the essence of war, and no Christian can uphold war unless he is prepared to kill his brother. If a man believes in the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man war is murder and all war is civil war. The core of Christian pacifism is the belief that it is never right to take human life. It has nothing to do with quietism in the sense of immoral apathy or cowardice. Its basis is not utilitarian. It does not condemn all use of force. It is a constructive philosophy of life. It does not make an unconditional surrender to evil. It attacks it with something much more effective than violence, namely the constructive power of nonviolent resistance.

Turn to Christ’s teaching. We may twist his sayings with all the perversity of ecclesiastical casuistry but we shall have a very poor case when we try to make him bless war. The nearer we get to Calvary the more obvious, surely, that truth becomes. The Christian Church will never be destroyed by opposition, but it will indeed be in danger when its moral judgments provoke the indignation of enlightened men and compel them to believe that nothing induces us to take our Lord seriously.

I am a pacifist first and last because I wish to be a sincere disciple of Jesus Christ. For me Christianity is the following of Jesus Christ in incorruptness of living; and I think we follow not merely when the going is good – by the shining lake of Galilee – but out beyond Jerusalem where the redemptive power of suffering love was perfectly and effectively consecrated for the salvation of the world. I cannot pray to God or try to look in the face of Jesus Christ at Cana of Galilee or at Calvary and then prepare to kill my brother.

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was written as a statement of a pacifism in the same spirit as Dick Shephard’s: on the title page of the score he quoted Wilfred Owen: “My subject is War, and the pity of War.” The music juxtaposes the traditional Latin mass for the dead with poems by Owen, who died in battle one week before the armistice officially ended the hostilities.

The War Requiem thus commemorates the thirty-seven million who died in World War I and was also intended to serve as a warning to future generations of the futility of taking up arms against their fellow human beings. To listen to the entire work is to be reminded to pray for the fallen, wounded, and bereaved in all wars – including those being fought today. Britten requested that there be no applause after the performance.

The irreplaceable first recording was made in 1962 when the War Requiem was first performed for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed during the Battle of Britain. The three soloists were Galina Vishnevskaya (a Russian), Peter Pears (an Englishman) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a German). In this excerpt, Fischer-Dieskau sings words from Owen’s sonnet “On Seeing A Piece Of Our Artillery Brought Into Action,” which evokes the poet’s awe and horror at the power of modern weapons. Suddenly the chorus and a massive brass section explode into the Dies Irae, the terrifying medieval poem about the Day of Judgment.

http://youtu.be/8wA-Q9XUNVY

 

Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
Great Gun towering towards Heaven, about to curse:

Reach at that Arrogance which needs thy harm,
And beat it down before its sins grow worse.

But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,
May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!

Chorus:

Dies irae, dies illa,
Solvet saeclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla.
Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando Judex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!

This day, this day of wrath
Shall consume the world in ashes,
As foretold by David and Sibyl.
What trembling there shall be
When the judge shall come
To weigh everything strictly.

 

after the battle by Walter Kleinfeldt “After the Battle.” Photograph by German soldier Walter Kleinfeldt, who fought at the Somme at age 16.
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